TV UK, 19 September

White Teeth's characters suffer the culture shocks of attempted suicide, sex in a toilet and arranged marriage.

Dolan Cummings

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Topics Politics

White Teeth (Channel 4, Tuesdays at 10pm) is painfully trendy. Young, snazzy, witty, attractive, multicultural and cool.

The adverts have been everywhere, of course, introducing the colourful inhabitants of Willesden, the bustling multicultural London borough where the story is set. Even without the association with Zadie Smith, the young author with looks to match her strangely alluring name, this show would be what TV people call ‘sexy’.

Mark Lawson said on Newsnight Review last week that White Teeth would be different from other adaptations from novels because so many people have actually read the novel. I’m not convinced. It might have sold by the bundle, but I have a suspicion that White Teeth is to multicultural contemporary fiction what A Brief History of Time was to cosmology.

I mean have you seen it? It’s this big! The troll who lives on the sofa bought it and got about halfway before giving up. (And those who have read the second half say it isn’t half as good as the first anyway.) But I reckon it was mostly bought for holding on the tube. Well, now we can all watch the whole TV adaptation and say how much we loved the soundtrack, but that it wasn’t as good as the book. I can’t wait.

Nonetheless, it seems only to fair to review the adaptation as a TV drama in its own right, and certainly White Teeth has a great cast and a nice pace and is very watchable. The first episode opened on the day I was born, which was a nice hook, and I suppose that even if you weren’t born on that exact day, over the four episodes White Teeth is supposed to capture something about what Britain means to Smith’s and my generation.

So far what’s interesting is the experience of immigration, largely from the former colonies, into a Britain whose values are changing dramatically. Attempted suicide, sex in a toilet and arranged marriage failed to bring about the end of the world in the opening episode, and if all this culture shock stuff seems a bit overbearing, there are three more episodes for the drama to come into its own. I think I’ll come back to this.

Moving back a generation or two, The British Empire in Colour (ITV1, Sundays at 10.15pm) inevitably documents its subject’s decline, since as everybody knows the British Empire was built in black and white. Despite the limited timespan, the footage is impressive, especially that from India, the jewel in the multicultural crown. The highlights of the opening episode included a royal wedding and a tiger hunt.

Regardless of its obvious bearing on multiculturalism, though, the decline of the empire is not ‘sexy’. When it comes to history, TV prefers early man, ancient civilisations and Tudors, unless maybe an ‘ordinary family’ from Willesden could be persuaded to spend eight weeks in a Partition-style refugee camp in Kashmir.

Episode 4: the family decides to murder its own daughters to save them from being raped by the enemy. Well, there’s multiculturalism and there’s multiculturalism.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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